Fifty years ago the first artificial satellite was launched in orbit. Sputnik caused a sensation around the world, briefly putting the Soviet Union at the forefront of the space race. Flush with this success, Soviet premier Khruschev ordered that a second satellite be launched within a month – this time with a living creature inside the satellite. That living creature was a dog named Laika, and this spectacular graphic novel tells her story. In telling this story, Abadzis does something truly spectacular, showing the events from many different standpoints, including that of the dog.
Readers see this achievement through many eyes.
We see it through the eyes of Sergei Korolev, the brilliant scientist who is driven by his obsession with his own greatness, an obsession that helped him to survive the worst of Josef Stalin’s gulags. The book opens with Korolev wandering from his Siberian labor camp into a small town as he repeats his mantra to himself. “I am a man of destiny. I will not die” he says. And, amazingly, Korolev is indeeds a man of destiny, a man soon to be a truly historical figure. Because we’ve seen his inner thoughts and motivations, readers grasp clearly the passions and obsessions that drive Korolev. Because he’s been through hell and knows his abilities, Korolev is a man without limits, truly a man of destiny.
We see this achievement through the eyes of Yelena Dubrovsky, the dog handler whose passion for the animals earns her a place in the team far above what she ordinarily would have deserved. Yelena provides a wonderful bit of humanity and passion to the story. Readers feel her passion for all the dogs for which she cares. There’s a wonderful scene where Yelena is talking about the personalities of each dog where readers see that she truly loves the dogs. Laika is Yelena’s favorite, and readers really see the joy and fear she feels at Laika being launched into space. Yelena’s best friend even calls Yelena’s passion for the dogs an unrequited love, an amusing and interesting insight.
And most impressively, we see this achievement through the eyes of Laika himself. Using the sort of storytelling magic that only comics can deliver, Abadzis continually puts the reader inside the head of the dog. It sounds corny, but this is the storytelling element that lifts this book from merely good to being outstanding. Readers see how Laika views the world through her eyes. We see the pride she feels about being called a “good dog,” see her dreams of running free and being loved by humans, and see her passion for Yelena. The most moving scene in the book is when Laika is launched into space. Throughout the book Laika had had recurring dreams of flying through the sky. Her space journey gives Laika the chance to literally fly through space, and the joy and pleasure she feels at that moment is conveyed beautifully by Abadzis.
And there are many other memorable characters. In the early part of the book readers see Laika’s early life. Through those scenes we see the lives of ordinary Muscovites, like the dog catchers and marketplace vendors. We also see the forces that shaped Laika’s personality, forces that have a clever parallel to the forces that shaped Sergei Korolev.
Abadzis’s storytelling adds additional elements that bring the story to a higher level. Abadzis does a great job of varying his panel arrangements. At times he uses a set of recurring squares, for instance to show Laika’s dreams of freedom. At other times he uses long, horizontal panels to show landscapes or dreamlike arrangements to show inner thoughts. The rare times he uses full-page or two-page spreads, the effect is breathtaking. Readers had gotten used to the smaller panels throughout the story; breaking the flow with larger panels gives the book a sense of awe and grandeur.
Hilary Sycamore’s coloring adds yet another element to the story. She very carefully manages her pallette. Laika always seems to be near some green, perhaps representing the grass she wishes was under her paws. Meanwhile, the Soviet research facility is depicted in dull tones and the sky is always depicted in inviting, dark, rich colors.
As you can see, Nick Abadzis accomplishes something truly special in Laika: he takes a large, complex and important story and renders it personal. It’s extraordinary the way he balances the different stories, presenting a historical graphic novel that is thoroughly vivid and fascinating. This is an outstanding graphic novel.